The Michelangelo Phenomenon: An Artist’s Guide to Happy Relationships

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"Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. " - Michelangelo

What could we learn about relationships by considering the quote above by the Renaissance artist, Michelangelo?

Relationship experts say Michelangelo’s words help us uncover an essential part of what makes many happy relationship so enriching: supporting one another’s goals.

What is the Michelangelo Phenomenon

While most research on how we develop skills and acquire resources focuses on individuals, a theory called the Michelangelo Phenomenon says partners can help shape one another’s goals based on how they behave. In doing so, those who affirm their partner’s ideal self-goals experience a variety of benefits.

Michelangelo describes sculpting as a process of chipping away pieces of stone to reveal the ideal form waiting beneath the surface. Like Michelangelo’s blocks of stones, humans have ideal forms too. These are our visions of our best selves, our dreams, passions and the collections of skills and characteristics we work to attain.

We all have personal goals we hope to achieve. Many of us strive for career success and for the promotions, respect and financial rewards that come with it. Others might pursue travel, athletics, or find meaning by improving our communities through volunteering or faith-based service.

Although our personal goals may vary, one thing remains fairly consistent: we often achieve our most important goals through a mix of personal effort and interpersonal relationships. In other words, we adapt and change as we interact with other people and they, in turn, help shape how we access resources and develop skills.

According to research, over time we reflect what our partners “see in us.” When our partners believe we are capable of something, they are likely to bring out those qualities and behaviors. As a result, we might say things like, “I'm a better person when I'm with [them].”

The Importance of Balance

In most healthy couples, each partner balances out the other’s personality. Researchers use the example of a workaholic who might benefit when their more laid-back partner encourages them to take a break for a Sunday afternoon hike.

But couples need to be careful not to impose goals on one another. One partner might make up a goal – such as avoiding sweets – which they really wish the other partner would take on. Even if well-intentioned, this is often counter-productive. Instead of building our partners up, researchers say this approach can seem like a type of criticism.

Alternatively, it would be better to find mutually shared goals and to remember that partners can often help one another grow without a lot of effort. The key is to identify qualities in our partners that already exist or that they want to develop within themselves. We can often find out what those qualities are by asking, or by noticing the contributions our partners are currently making toward improving their own and others’ well-being.

ELEVATE Your Relationship

Looking for ways to connect and get closer with your partner? Heading towards marriage? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a free, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, and Before You Tie the Knot, a free marriage preparation course, in 5 Florida counties. All our programs are taught by trained professionals and all are welcome to attend. Sign up today!


Written by Dylan Klempner, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Edited by Kristina Forman, lead editor, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Eckel, S. (2019). The Michelangelo Effect. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201901/the-michelangelo-effect.

Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kumashiro, M. (2009). The Michelangelo Phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(6), 305–309. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01657.